Words

Words in Writing

This is one of the simple things that everyone either takes for granted or just doesn’t think about.

Words.

Words are made up of letters, and either expresses some concept or communicates something.

I’ll leave out the grammar rules and the cliches and other expressions for now, and just talk about words. I’m using words about words – so to speak. You have to describe the scene and the action in the scene, and do so in a way that the reader can follow along.

If you have a character that you want to drink a glass of water (or whatever that character prefers,) as a writer, you could see that character in your imagination. Let’s say he’s sitting at a table and his hand reaches out for his drink.

Jack drank the water.

Short, simple, and to the point. If you are writing in a concise manner, then you have communicated what he did. It’s a little bland, however. What if he happened to be very thirsty?

Jack guzzled the water.

That gives a little more description with the change of one single word. Let’s add a little more to it.

Jack guzzled the water. Drops spilled out and ran down his chin.

He seems a bit anxious, but why we don’t know. It could be any number of reasons. Maybe he’s still thinking about that bad day at work.

Jack guzzled the water. Drops spilled out and ran down his chin. Odell had left a couple of hours earlier, and he was feeling hungover.

Choose your words carefully for the maximum effect of what you want to achieve. Here’s Jack’s just not having the best of days, and that has to be communicated to your reader. To recap a little, Jack is my character that rides a garbage truck. He found a body in a garbage can, and well, it didn’t brighten his day.

Jack guzzled the water. Drops spilled out and ran down his chin. Odell had left a couple of hours earlier, and he was feeling hungover. He was grateful for the visit, but the alcohol had made him sleepy. He decided to go to bed.

Let’s work on that last sentence a little.

He was grateful for the visit, but the alcohol had made him sleepy. He decided to get up and fumble his way to his bed.

Decision’s made, but he isn’t all that graceful. A couple of twelve packs will do that.

Jack stubbed his toe on the coffee table.

“Ow,” he grumbled, not really feeling it. A very distant corner of his brain decided that it would wait to report the pain until in the morning.

He found his bed and tumbled in.

Hmm… That’s pretty straightforward, again.

 Jack stubbed his toe on the coffee table.

“Ow,” he grumbled, not really feeling it. A very distant corner of his brain decided that it would wait to report the pain until in the morning.

He shuffled into the bedroom, holding on to the doorframe and knocking knickknacks off the wall. The bed was still in the unmade shape he’d left it, and he collapsed onto the dirty sheets.

Jack was asleep before his body came to a stop. His snores resounded throughout the small apartment.

Yep. He’s out. All that, from taking a drink of water. Let’s look at the whole thing.

Jack guzzled the water. Drops spilled out and ran down his chin. Odell had left a couple of hours earlier, and he was feeling hungover. He was grateful for the visit, but the alcohol had made him sleepy. He decided to get up and fumble his way to his bed.

 Jack stubbed his toe on the coffee table. “Ow,” he grumbled, not really feeling it. A very distant corner of his brain decided that it would wait to report the pain until in the morning.

He shuffled into the bedroom, holding on to the doorframe and knocking knickknacks off the wall. The bed was still in the unmade shape he’d left it, and he collapsed onto the dirty sheets.

Jack was asleep before his body came to a stop. His snores resounded throughout the small apartment.

At the same time, we have to be careful not to repeat a lot of words. I’m bad about this. Let’s look at this again.

Jack guzzled the water. Drops spilled out and ran down his chin. Odell had left a couple of hours earlier, and the young man was feeling hungover. He was grateful for the visit, but the alcohol had made him sleepy. He decided to get up and fumble his way to bed.

 Jack stubbed his toe on the coffee table. “Ow,” came a slow grumble, not really feeling it. A very distant corner of his brain decided that it would wait to report the pain until in the morning.

He shuffled into the bedroom, holding on to the doorframe and knocking knickknacks off the wall. The bed was still in the unmade shape he’d left it, and Jack collapsed onto the dirty sheets.

He was asleep before his body came to a stop. Snores resounded throughout the small apartment.

I’m pretty sure it could use some more tightening up. This is where editing by others comes into play, but that is a post for another time.

Words are what a writer uses. Enjoy your words!

 

Happy writing!

–JB Steele

Descriptions

Descriptions in writing

Descriptive writing is important. This is what allows you to communicate the image or the “mental movie” in your head to your reader. For me, it’s a mental movie. Others have told me that it’s a still image that starts to slowly advance frame-by-frame. They have to write out each frame. Granted that is just about the same thing, especially when you consider that moviemaking is at least 24 frames per second with the persistence of vision. For me, I can’t write the frames, I write the movie. Sometimes I have to go back and rewrite things that I’ve skipped over, trying to document the movie.

Whatever works for you, once you get the rough draft down, then don’t forget that it is your wordsmithing that tells a story. Many times, it is the difference between boredom and ‘page-gripping intensity.’ It doesn’t often come with the first or second draft either. A lot of times, it takes a few drafts.

Let’s look at our good buddy Jack. He’s had that rough day at work, and the boss told him, “you know what, Jack? You had a rough day today, what would finding that stuff. Why don’t you take the next couple days off, with pay. Try to recuperate a little.”

So here’s Jack relaxing, or trying to, at home.

Jack sat down in the chair with his drink.

Straight and to the point, right? However, all your mind’s eye sees is Jack sitting with a drink. Up until now, we haven’t seen where Jack lives. All we’ve seen in the earlier posts was where he works. Let’s rewind the tape and start again.

The clock on the wall ticked out the seconds. The only other sounds in the sparse apartment came from the hiss of the beer can popping open and the wheeze of the cheap armchair cushion as Jack flopped down. He stared out the window, through the blinds, to see the occasional car zip by the concrete jungle of his housing unit. It was a little stuffy in the apartment, so he set the sweating beer can down on the side table with a metallic ‘clink’ and got up. Jack fiddled with the old window unit until he convinced it to turn on. A hollow ‘thump’ announced the condenser’s reluctant activation, and cool air blew out.

Jack flopped down again, the cushion wheezing out another indignant breath. He picked up the beer, giving the wet ring on his side table a passing glance, and took a long sip. The television was silent, and he absently listened to the ‘tick tick tick tick’ of the clock, and found his mind inerrantly revisiting the memory of the ripping plastic bag and the red splashes in the back of the garbage truck.

He shuddered, trying to block out the memory. It was bad enough without having to relive it. Jack tipped the can back, and was rewarded with nothing. The can was empty. He grunted with displeasure and crushed the can. It didn’t take long to decide to get up and get another beer from the fridge.

The cushion wheezed out in relief as the refrigerator hummed.

Hmm…. I think Jack is having a bad time right now, and to tell the truth I can’t blame him. As for the description, you could come away with the impression that Jack is scraping by. Either that or he’s really cheap. Either way, this allows you to set up for something else to happen.

I could see either Jack falling asleep after getting drunk and having a nightmare happen, or if he just gets buzzed, maybe somebody knocking on his door.

The beer was halfway drained when a knock came on the door. Jack looked in the general direction, but ignored it. It came again, and Jack grumbled, “I’m coming!” He managed to set the beer down approximately in the wet ring, next to the other two empties. The cushion wheezed as he got up.

Jack stumbled to the door, and fumbled with the lock. The heavy door swung open to reveal Odell standing there with a case of beer in his hands.Jack squinted at the other man.

“Odell? Why ain’t you at work?”

White teeth shone again dark skin as Odell grinned.

“Same reason you ain’t at work, except I’ve seen stuff like that before and you haven’t. I can handle it easier. Can I come in? This beer isn’t going to keep itself cold.”

Jack grunted and stood aside. Odell looked over Jack’s shoulder as he walked in and saw the crumpled cans on the side table, and the one on the floor.

“Jack, looks like you got started a bit early.”

“Yeah.”

“You got that cheap crap, too. Here.” Odell ripped open the case and fished a bottle out. It was a thick German beer. “You need something better than that to chase away that stuff you saw.”

Jack took the brew and stumbled into the small kitchenette, looking for a bottle opener. Odell took a lighter out of his pocket and popped the top off, then gave it to Jack.

“Go sit down. I’ll look for a bottle opener.”

“OK.” A few moments later, the cushion wheezed again. Odell looked around. There was an ancient refrigerator, a small stove and a hotplate, a fairly new microwave that looked like it could handle a mug of water and a baby’s bowl, and a card table with two metal folding chairs to sit in. Odell shook his head. He found a bottle opener, and took a kitchen chair with him. He sat down, opened a bottle for himself, and looked at Jack.

“Hell of a day, huh, Jack?”

“Yeah.”

They clinked bottles and drank deep.

I think I’ll leave them to it. I don’t think either one’s going to work tomorrow, either.

Be strong in what you write, and your reader will see everything. If you do it right, and leave just enough blank, then the imagination of the reader might fill in something that you can see too.

I haven’t described Odell much, but I have an image of him in my mind. It would be interesting to see if the reader’s mental image and my mental image jibe. I like Odell, personally, and I think I’ll be writing him in more stuff. Somebody’s got to look after Jack, you know.

There is a balancing act when you use descriptions, though. On one hand you have too little description, which leaves a faint imprint upon your reader. On the other, you have too much, which can bury your reader and be tiresome. This is sometimes called an ‘infodump,’ and is necessary at times, but try to avoid it. On the gripping hand, a good descriptive and vivid story will leave your reader wanting more, when you weave it into all the other parts of a tale.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Plots and plot twists

Tonight, I’m thinking about plots.

Nominally, a plot is absolutely required. You can’t tell a good story without one. Stephen King had one with the Dark Tower books. David Weber has several with the Honor Harrington books, the Safehold novels, and the Empire from the Ashes books. These are but two of the many authors that I’ve read. The thing about the ones that I enjoyed?

They all had a compelling plot. Or, plots and sub-plots.

Tom Clancy, may he rest in peace, was a master at gripping plots. I only hope that I will be able to match his plotting ability. David Weber, who is a great guy (and his wife Sharon is just sweet,) has a gift of his own. I will gladly read anything by either.

But “plot” is the topic tonight.

Let’s go back to Jack from a couple of nights ago. He’s our maybe-not-the-best guy. He’s found himself trapped in our world and he can’t help but get kicked four times too many.

Let’s say that he is set in the Renaissance era, a clerk to a lawyer. He has a stuffy office, really tiny, and to add insult to injury, he has to share the office. He’s getting bumped a lot while he’s trying to write. Ink is spilling on his clothes, and he doesn’t make much to replace them. He sees people that aren’t much better off than he is. Jack doesn’t eat a lot, since he doesn’t make a lot.

See what I’m doing? I’m defining a background. With this background, a plot might just suggest itself.

On one hand, Jack could spend his nights at the pub, getting drunk and bemoaning his lot in life.

On the other hand, he could decide to become a criminal. Hey, he works in a lawyer’s office. I’m pretty sure he could see things to do or not do.

On the gripping hand, he could be in the right place to contribute when the hero needs help with the Big Bad – or become the hero himself.

If he becomes the hero of the story, then the backstory (a war, or savage rulers, or famine, or something) could be the cause of the situation that Jack finds himself in and that he has no choice but to do something about. Create drama – put him in the position that the alternative is death or a fate worse than death.

If he is a supporting character, then the plot is established before he is brought in. It’s up to you.

So, here’s a plot. The kingdom is peaceful, but that peace only comes at the cost of several hard-fought wars. This means that the royal treasury is low, there are a lot of veterans with conditions that they didn’t have when they went off in the service of the King, and to top it all off, winter is coming. There hasn’t been a lot of the men around to plant the crops, much less harvest them, and the King and his advisers are just a little bit stuck. They have to figure out what to do to get through the winter, and do it quick.

So, they decide to levy heavy taxes. It’s either that, or go back to war.

Jack hears about that, sitting in the lawyer’s office scribbling away, and shakes his head. He’s never going to do that, not go into the King’s service and maybe get sent off to war. Nope, old Jack’s staying right where he is.

About that time, a neighboring sovereign, with a little more resources and a lot more meanness decides the time is right to go hunting. He starts to attack the kingdom that Jack is a subject of, and it’s ugly. It seems that this aggressor king has a general that very competent, very strong, and very vicious. This uber-general sacks the outlying towns, and starts the rape, pillage, and burn routine.

The subjects are outraged. The King is outraged, and worried. Jack is outraged, worried, and upset.

Why “-and upset?” Well, you tell me. What could fit in the plot to do that?

So, to advance the plot, Jack gets told “you’re in the Army now, son,” and hilarity ensues (so to speak.) He has to make it through Army life, in alternating chapters, while the Hero or his stunt double rides bravely forth.

Probably with half his face painted blue, but that’s another story.

I won’t lay out the rest of the plot for you. You know, I might want to write this one out one day and submit to somebody, but this brings me to the other part of tonight’s post. For now, old Jack is resigned to KP, drilling, and trying to remember the parts in his Springfield M3 shoulder fired weapon. Okay, I’m kidding about the M3 rifle. I’m thinking about something useful.

Plot twists.

Plot twists are just that – something to set you on your ear and make you yell out, “Oh no, he did’ENT!”

And I can think of one. Several, really.

It’d be too easy to say that the opposing general would turn out to be the Hero’s long lost brother during the climatic battle that finds them fighting to the death, one about to strike the deadly blow that will end the war.

What about the other general being Jack’s son, or former partner in the law firm, or even better…

How about the general being female, and she’s the woman he loved and lost?

So – here’s another subject that I’ll save for another post. Conflict.

You know old Jack is going to be torn. At this point in the story, the plot has to go somewhere, but it could go anywhere. You know how you want the story to end – the kingdom back at peace and recovering, Jack’s in better shape, and maybe there’s a setup for another book. But before you get to the end, there has to be a beginning and a middle. In other words, a plot.

So, sit down and make a plot, then write to the plot. As you get more accomplished in plotting (ahem) then plot upon plot will unroll in the infinite spaces of your mind even as you write scene after scene.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Thoughts about background

Background for your characters is important.

Let’s say you have some guy that wanders aimlessly. He seems to be someone that seems to always be in the trouble spots or the tight spots in your story/book/epic/whatever. He’s a little irritating, too. Your main character is getting suspicious because this guy always turns up at the various crime scenes rubbernecking or he’s always in the crowd when, as in the The Princess Bride, the evil Prince announces his upcoming marriage to the female lead. Or, any such other happening. You can’t help but notice him, but unless he is introduced to the reader properly, this character is just going to confuse the story.

So, in your plot, you carve out a little bit of time to introduce this character. I’ll call him Jack. Jack’s a quiet guy, but he’s had a rough life just like all the other guys in his socioeconomic class. He’s got issues, but he’s plodding along and really trying not to hurt anyone that doesn’t need it. Jack doesn’t have the best of luck and it seems that he can’t get ahead in life. He’s resigned himself to always be the overlooked. Jack gets up, does his work or whatever, and comes home to an empty house. Probably his empty house is either freakishly neat or a total dump. Jack doesn’t go out of his way to be rude to other men during his day, but he doesn’t try to be nice either. He keeps getting kicked while he’s down, so why bother?

Then one day, the female lead dashes in, and she’s being chased by a minion of the Big Bad. She is scared out of her mind and trying to get away from the minion, who has this maniacal gleam in his eye. He obviously doesn’t want to sell her tickets to the square dance. Jack looks up to see her… and stops the attack. He rescues the young woman.

That would be it for that little bit. Simple, formulaic, and you kind of want to root for the underdog Jack. You know, maybe things will start to look up for old Jack and he’ll get the girl, to boot.

But what if Jack was misogynistic like all get out? What if you had earlier in your story wrote Jack as embittered by being kicked down four times too many in life, and he hated women? Suppose all the background that you established for him didn’t match this act? Here he is, more bitter than week old coffee brewed too strong. He hates women. If it wasn’t for biological urges, he’d just as soon see them all packed away somewhere far away. And he really dislikes blondes, like two of his ex-wives. But, he saves a woman from getting kidnapped, or raped, or murdered, or turned into an undead revenant. Why?

Now, if the hero of the story was an investigative sort and found all this out, he would be seriously wondering just what Jack’s role is in all of this. He has the Big Bad to worry about, too, but Jack gives him fits. What is Jack’s secret and how does he fit in with all this? The hero is going to be thinking, and rightly so, that this Jack guy is acting out of character for what he’s supposed to be. Is he up to something?

He’s going to be wondering pretty hard about Jack.

And, if you establish the background of your characters just right, so will your reader.

In this example, there are a lot of questions that other characters are going to be raising about Jack. But, there would be no reason to be raising those questions (and therefore creating drama for your plot) if you didn’t first describe Jack in such a way that when he later saves the princess, it seems like there something about Jack’s character that no one knows – yet.

So who is Jack, really?

Finding out who he is could be a viable subplot in your story, and if executed correctly, would add nuance and all those different shades of gray that set off the main plot.

So, let’s say that the hero is chasing after the Big Bad, who’s got the princess this time. She’s fighting him and spitting and clawing and being totally disagreeable. He doesn’t care. The hero is falling behind, and the Big Bad is about to escape.

Except – that there’s a hidden sidekick that has all his demons wrestled out. Jack shows up and slows the Big Bad down enough to allow the hero time to show up.

This leads into the idea of the plot twist, which couldn’t happen without establishing a background for your characters. Take the time early in your story to do that establishing, because in the middle of the book, when your plot is supposed to be getting hot and heavy is too late. If you do character development then, except in certain flashbacks, you just mess up the tempo of the book and have to pick up the pace again.

Next up, the plot and plot twists.

-JB Steele